Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"So what ARE you doing now?"

I just got back from a trip to Pittsburgh to see my classmate, labmate and scholastic role model defend her PhD.  In the last year I've really come to value being able to support and care for people that I care about, so it was awesome to celebrate this big moment with her.  It was also perfect timing for me to dig through my notebooks regarding the resubmission of my primary manuscript, and to catch up with tons of people in the department. 

I've been struggling for a long time to explain what I am doing and how it is going, and it felt even harder to drudge up the words and confidence to discuss it with faculty who have seen my career develop.  Some people can take "I'm self-employed" as a reasonable answer, but my letter writers cut me off with a skeptical "What does that mean?" And then I mumble about having some contracts, and networking.... even though this is an arrangement I am reasonably happy with*, I can tell no one else is impressed.  Or understands.  It's hard for that not to undercut my fragile confidence.

Fortunately, I was staying with a good friend who reminded me that the reason I've having a hard time describing what I am doing is because I have so many things going on.  I can't figure out which is the priority at this point (contractinginterningbeing a board member? seeking out new training?).  Of course, I should work on this.  Being able to tell my story in a way that helps people connect, asks for help or implies confidence is important.  But until I can get that story streamlined, it's ok if I don't feel like a failure anyway.

*I turned 29 recently.  I'm not normally a very age focused person, but realizing that I'm not yet thirty and I don't have my career in order seems ok.  Normal even.  I would LIKE to get my career in order, but I've got time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

What I should have said to my high school science teacher

I went home for a visit recently.  I grew up in Juneau, Alaska and I don't get there often.  The timing of this visit actually seemed quite lovely, here I am wondering what I am doing with my life, and I get to revisit my roots to reflect.  I got to spend some time at low tide looking at sea cucumbers and digging in tide pools, which reminded me why I enjoyed science when I was younger- it legitimized my curiosity.

At the end of the week, I ran into my high school oceanography teacher.  He was the drummer for the wedding band, so I had some time to think about if I should talk to him at all, and if so, what should I say.  In the spirit of revisiting my past, I said something like "Mr. ____, I'm not sure if you remember me.  I took your Oceanography class as a 5th year senior.  I just wanted to thank you, and let you know I earned my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology."  He laughed a little, and said, "And you owe it all to me?" He continued with pleased congratulations (he only vaguely remembered me), and then said, "In class you never can tell who is going to make it, and who is going to be a bartender for the rest of their life."  It was a sore point with me for a long time that getting out of high school was such a struggle to finish- I did a year of foreign exchange for my first senior year, and came back to finish a credit and a half and collect my diploma- but I my teachers were very supportive.  Obviously, I liked science before this time, or I wouldn't have taken Oceanography as an elective.  I didn't really need to thank him for helping me be interested in science, but after our conversation I realized what I should have said.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I understood that to get ahead academically, I had to work hard.  I worked on good study habits, and took a lot of courses that emphasized problem solving.  However, this oceanography class encouraged curiosity for its own sake.  Every day, we had to turn in 5 questions about the ocean.  They could be totally lame, or incredibly thoughtful, we got the same grade.  At first, I didn't really know how to pose questions.  How deep is the ocean?  How many kinds of fish are in the ocean?  As the course went on, and there was more content to pull from, my questions got better, How do fish sense brakish water?  How does low oxygen levels affect bacteria? But more importantly, I stopped needing to be a know-it-all.  We were just asking questions to ask them.  They almost never got answered, and it was still fun to pose them.  And that turned out to be a huge key to shaping my temperament for science.  Science is a field where curiosity is essential for driving success, but rarely rewarded directly.  I'm glad I had a chance to develop that separately in the supportive atmosphere of the high school science classroom.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Business Development Intern

While I was thinking about productive, lucrative, ways to spend my time, I ran across a whole  new arena to spend time in.  I'm currently working as the business development intern for Zwittertech, a start-up that can put non-fouling polymers on a variety of surfaces.  The technology is fairly well developed, but they are at that strange point in a start-up's life cycle where is it is time to decide what they are going to make, and how that is going to make money. 

Before I started working at the C4C, I'd never given much thought to how you convert good ideas (example, cure for the common cold) to profitable businesses (curing colds).  At some point, some savvy entrepreneur decides how that idea can make money, and puts all the pieces in place to get it made, on the market and used by people.  I'm starting to realize this is a unique problem in biotech- well, not unique but incredibly expensive.  Imagine, if you will, trying to turn any assay you developed in grad school into something as reliable as a mini-prep.  AND reagents are expensive, AND distribution is monopolized AND your clients are worried about their funding and uninterested in taking a risk on new products.  This might explain the stagnant growth of the biotech industry in the last few years. 

All that aside, my task for the next few weeks is to help Zwittertech decide on thier first product, of the minimally viable product (MVP).  The sooner they can get something on the market that makes some revenue, it will add stability to their balance sheet, which can allow them to develop more of the products they are interested in long-term.  To figure out what the MVP is, I am using a text book called The Startup Owner's Manual.  I'm developing business canvases, and hope to be moving into customer discovery next week.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I'm self-employed

When I stopped working, I felt like I lost an important part of my identity.  I had been working for years and years in the pursuit of my PhD, and once I earned it, I had nothing left to replace that project with.  People always ask, "What do you do?" and I would cringe and mumble about being 'between things,' or apologize for being a new grad.  Even knowing that I had a pathetic response to that question, repeated rehearsals of a better answer always sounded canned and false.  Sure, I can say I am a freelance writer/editor/marketing intern, but it's such a weird arrangement that I never see that look of understanding from the questioner and I abruptly change the subject. 

Recently, I've had a fair amount of contract work.  I've started a new (paid) internship (stemming from my contacts at the C4C).  It occurred to me that I don't have time to look for a real job for a while, I'm too busy making money.  I'm still making up my mind if what I do now is worth the taxpayer investment in my education, but after a year of seeking a little self-respect, it feels righteous to make a sold paycheck. My phone rang this morning with someone asking if I would be interested in a two month contract, and I got to say I am booked solid for the next two months. I would rather be worried about how I am going to get all this work done than how I am going to get work.

This morning, I was asked, "What do you do?" and without hesitation I said, "I'm self-employed."  How cool is that??  I'm still looking for a long term solution, but I'm so happy to have a short term solution that seems to fit really well.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Off-site contractor culture

I just got off the phone from a meeting with a new team I'll be working with for my previous client.  I'm starting to feel like being a off-site contractor for a while could work. I might be able to get this work, I like this work and it might help me get some other kind of work later.  BUT it's hard to know if I am doing it right.  This client is great, because they are very communicative, but how am I supposed to know how many hours they expect me to work?  I have a non-exclusivity clause with them, which is good, because I just signed another contract with Words and Numbers for a big chunk of work.  I just don't see how I can do both without either knowing.  Do they want to know?  Do their other contractors let them know?

I've mentioned before that it's awesome to have a relationship that is based almost exclusively on my work performance.  (In this phone call, the other contractor who has seen my name on our last project said she had assumed I was a guy.)  I worry a little that there is supposed to be more (or less) in that relationship.  When I started, I was asked why my anticipated hours might be, but that was from the perspective of timezones, not accountability.  So, when I take a long midday break, do they care?  I assumed not if I make the work goals.  What about when we are setting those goals? 

The purpose of this phone call was to kick off a new project, and the timing is such that I now am going to be fairly busy with other contracts for a while.  I was SO relieved that there was another contractor on this phone call.  The editor just asked, "How much work do you think you'll get done on this project?" The other contractor just said, "I've got another project right now, so I am looking at about 25 hours a week."  I was so excited that was an acceptable answer, I may have said that verbatim. And that was fine.

Another component of this is that my editor reiterated several times that he wants to be supportive and helpful, he wants to get questions, he wants to provide answers and please email him a lot.  Ok.  It was really great to get that clarified, especially since this particular contract involves some work that I am not experienced with.  It's nice to know that he hadn't thought I'd been hired because I am good at this type of work, just that I should be able to learn. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Better, cheaper, faster, easier

In my internship at the C4C, part of my job was to help innovators determine if thier idea would be better, cheaper, faster or easier than the current standards.  If you can be one (or all) of those things, you've got a shot at success- or a market advantage.  (If you have none of these things- go back to the drawing board.) This type of assessment is something I'd like to bring to my job hunt.

I was discussing careers with a friend from graduate school, who was describing her resistance to taking on the PI path.  It's no surprise that it's a hard job, with responsibilities that not everyone wants to be good at (grant writing, mentorship, teaching and lab administration pop into mind).  But the people who are successful at it enjoy those aspects, or don't find them as miserable as I might. Or they find it worth it for the exciting and fun parts (assay design, designing projects, pursuing interesting scientific questions).  My friend said, "I'm not going to be better than my old boss at the fun and exciting stuff, and the hard parts won't be any easier for me."  I'm not going to be better at it, and it won't be easier for me.

This got me thinking about what I am doing right now.  I'm not sure it's my dream job, but curriculum development and instructional design are pretty easy for me.  I came from a standards based education that was very participatory, so assessing objectives and meeting educational standards isn't a struggle.  And I seem to be decent enough at it that I'm fairly busy with it for the moment.  I don't know that I am better that anyone at it, but I don't find the work emotionally hard (unlike, say, developing a blank Western at 6pm on a Friday), which leaves me a lot of energy to put into my real life. 

It might not be my dream job, but if a market advantage can score me a stable paycheck, maybe that is good enough.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Looking for a payoff

When I finished grad school, I quickly understood that my life would be strangely unstructured for a while.  I wanted the chance to try out some different things, such as volunteering and writing more, and I wanted the flexibility to drop things that weren't working for me.  As a result, I have been able to do lots of different things, but I haven't been paid much.  It's fantastically easy to get experience in things if you are willing to go without pay, but now I need to figure out how to transition those opportunities into a steady paycheck.

Of course I would just love to get hired to a solid job and collect one paycheck, but I am not convinced that this unstructured time in my life is over yet.  Instead, I am trying to find ways to get paid for some of the things I am doing, and only take on opportunities with a clear pay-off.  For example, I am volunteering at the Life Science Innovation NW Meeting, because that will allow me to go to this expensive, but important biotech event. I'm considering an internship with a biotech start-up in business development, because it is paid.

Now that I've tried a few different types of things, I have a better sense of what might count as a payoff.  I realized that there are things that I have done that I have a hard time weaving into my transition story (case in point, working at the bank). For some things, it took me a while to figure out how my participation made sense in the context of my interests and other experiences.  For example, I found myself participating in a lot of informal STEM education events.  Other things just weren't related- remember when I was going to learn Python?  For me, a payoff would be more experience in a field I am interested in (medical writing, editing or curriculum development), making better connections in those fields, or actually getting paid.  I don't feel very focused yet, but I can see that this is progress from where I was last year.

This is also a major cultural shift.  I think I internalized an idea that in science, you can't be selfish.  I worked hard for abstract reasons that weren't good money and a lifestyle of my own choosing.  A manuscript might open doors, and basic science might help us better understand disease.  In science, hard work is no guarantee of success and that's hard to take.  I'm trying to find ways to make my hard work turn into success, and to make "success" something of my own definition.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Do contractors ever get hired?

I am currently working on a contract in instructional design.  I write lessons for high schoolers and edit exam questions.  This is really fun; I get to learn about lots of different things, and it is a great way to get back to my early education that was standards based.  It's been going really well, outside of the usual contract drama (if I finish this today, can I still earn money tomorrow?).  I like the team, I like the work, and I like that they are located in Seattle.

I've heard mixed messages about transitioning from a contractor to a full-time employee.  On the one hand, being a contractor may indicate the work is unpredictable and unlikely to require a full-time person.  And working offsite makes it hard for employers to form a full impression of you.  At the same time, I'm objectively assessed on my work habits- that's the only thing they know about me.  And having a known entity come on board is less scary that seeing what you get from a job posting.  I've been thinking about how I could make this experience more stable for me- either by having some confidence in more long term contracts or getting hired.

My plan is to keep being as awesome as possible, staying in touch and reiterating how much I like the job.  And then to be clear about my intentions: I want a full-time job.  That's actually proving to be hard to drop casually into emails (again, the off-site conundrum.  These things don't just "come-up" around the water cooler). But they need some onsite work soon, so that may prove a better time to have those conversations (and figure out who to have them with).